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Forensic horror story: Human skulls, cauldrons, and mercury

Palo Mayombe offering found during an investigation of a slaughterhouse by Animal Rescue Mission. Photo by Richard Couto via Miami New Times.

Palo Mayombe offering found during an investigation of a slaughterhouse by Animal Rescue Mission. Photo by Richard Couto via Miami New Times.

Human skulls found in cauldrons tend to be associated with archaeological excavations, not forensic investigations.   But occasionally people will find hidden offerings made by Palo Mayombe practitioners, which will lead to a forensic investigation.  These ritual gifts usually include human skeletal remains, nonhuman bones, and vials of mercury.  A police involvement is necessary to determine the origin of the human bones and to collect the remains since mercury is a public health hazard.

Palo Mayombe is a syncretic religion that originated in the Congo Basin of Central Africa and was developed by slaves from Africa in the Caribbean.  A syncretic religion is a belief system that combines two or more spiritual beliefs, in this case the beliefs of African Congo tribes and Catholicism.

In 2009 James Gill, Christopher Rainwater, and Bradley Adams published a paper in the Journal of Forensic Sciences in which they analyzed two Palo Mayombe cases reported to the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.  After studying these cases and analyzing the literature they found that human skulls, nonhuman bones, mercury, cauldrons or altars, machetes or swords, money, sticks, and shells are common in these ritual cases.  Palo practitioners use mercury to bring luck, love, money, or to protect against evil.

Medical examiners, coroners, and/or anthropologists maybe asked to analyze the bones found in Palo sites to make sure they don’t belong to murder victims.  The authors found that the human bones used in Palo rituals usually came from looting of graves or were once anatomical specimens.  The things that indicated that these bones were once buried were their dry and brittle condition, soil-staining, erosion of some of the bone, and dirt caked in openings.  If skeletal remains were once medical specimens they are clean and will have tiny holes where wires connected to articulate the bones.

Since many of these remains are obtained by robbing graves, it would be interesting to conduct DNA analysis and radio carbon dating to find out more about the human bones.

Below are some recent news stories involving Palo Mayombe offerings

April 2012 Florida

One of the largest Palo sites ever discovered in the U.S. was found in Florida in April 2012.  Unfortunately the Palo practitioners at this site didn’t carefully handle their mercury, so the Miami-Dade County Health Department had to issue a public health warning to residents in the neighborhood. The contamination was so bad that the investigators handling the human and animal bones at this site got sick.

April 2013 Florida

Anthropologists from the University of Florida’s C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory found that skull fragments discovered in luggage at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport were associated with Palo Mayombe rituals.  The anthropologists said that the remains likely came from two different people and that soil-staining showed that the remains were likely buried before their bones were exhumed by grave robbers.

July 2013 Florida

A slaughterhouse was busted and the owners were accused of selling horse meat, abusing and sacrificing animals. While searching the slaughterhouse, investigators found evidence of Palo Mayombe rituals that included a room filled with burning candles, blood-covered statues, dolls, pots filled with animal heads and money, as well as swords and knives all over the place.


(2012 April 13).  Mercury at apparent ritual site poses health risk.  Retrieved on January 21, 2014 from:

Conti, Allie.  (2013 July 4).  Illegal Slaughterhouse Also Home To Religious Animal Sacrifices, Activist Says.  Miami New Times.  Retrieved on January 21, 2014 from:

Gill, James; Rainwater, Christopher; Adams, Bradley.  (2009 October 5).  Santeria and Palo Mayombe: Skulls, Mercury, and Artifacts. Journal of Forensic Sciences.  Retrieved on January 21, 2014 from:

Trischitta, Linda.  (2013 July 29).  Bones confiscated at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport were human skulls.  Sun-Sentinel.  Retrieved on January 21, 2014 from:


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